“It’s important for us as a society to remember that the youth within juvenile justice systems are, most of the time, youths who simply haven’t had the right mentors and supporters around them – because of circumstances beyond their control.” – Q’orianka Kilcher
In 2014, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made an estimated 1 million arrests of persons under age 18, 50% less than the number of arrests in 2005, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. By reclassifying low-level felonies to misdemeanors when appropriate, shortening jail and prison terms and eliminating prison sentences for technical violations of parole/probation when no new crime has been committed, states have the potential to reduce juvenile incarceration rates without harming public safety (CBPP).
Because tackling the criminal justice system’s primary problems is a lengthy and long-term project, a focus on juvenile education has dominated the conversation surrounding the corrupt system. A national campaign to close youth prisons, the Youth First Initiative, released polling data this month that revealed that “92 percent of Americans think the top priority of the juvenile system should be to help young offenders get back on track and be less likely to commit another offense” (JJIE). While many adults are set in their ways, youths have the chance to correct their destructive behavior and come out of jail or prison as more ethically-sound individuals.
This month, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department developed a pilot program to place young offenders in jobs if they already earned a high school diploma or GED. Under the two-tier Capstone Program, some youths can take jobs away from their facilities, while others continuing to exhibit behavioral issues are given jobs at their facilities (Texas Tribune). This is an effective system because it gives juveniles the chance to take out their frustrations on a job instead of each other, or, themselves.
Miriam, an 18-year-old who recently left the juvenile justice system, found rehabilitation during her work at a local pet grooming business and even befriended a groomer, Christine Healer, while she was there (Texas Tribune). “She’s made me see things like the different way people are,” Miriam said about Healer. “Not everybody knows how to interact with people. People can change. People are impacted by their environment.”
Obviously some people are murderers, rapists, etc. and need to be locked up, but what about the people who made a stupid mistake when they were still figuring out how to be an adult? Surely a country that spends sixty-eight billion dollars a year “on a system that destabilizes communities and derails the lives of individuals without improving public safety” (JPI) should be able to take the time to capitalize on the opportunity for convicts to rehabilitate and improve their lives, right?
A few programs have been enacted to protect offending minors from spending the rest of their lives behind bars, such as the Adolescent Diversion Program and Project Reset in New York. Currently, when a 16- or 17-year-old is arrested, the teen receives a desk appearance ticket to appear on a specific date before a judge. The judge then reviews the teen’s charges and decides whether he or she is eligible for a diversion program. However, typically the adolescent is not asked his or her opinions or interests, which makes the program feel “more like an obligation that isn’t tailored to the teenager’s circumstances or needs” (Medium).
While these programs are a step in the right direction, plenty still needs to be done to fill in the cracks of the criminal justice system. If reformers start with youths, at least young people who learned hard lessons at an early age have a chance at life outside bars. The fact that 50% less juveniles were arrested in 2014 than 2005 shows that youths are willing to learn from their mistakes. With the right tools and encouragement, past juvenile offenders have the chance to reform their ways and grow into responsible, trustworthy adults. The criminal justice system has been broken far too long; it’s time lawmakers make strides to correct the obvious problems in order to not only make the world a safer place, but also a place that offers offenders a chance to rehabilitate and make most of the life they were given.
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